Sound Sleepers

Sure, they're a bit of a gamble, but these five players are primed for their big breakout. If your bet on one or more of them pays off, you could be sitting pretty come December
September 03, 2006

Picking LarryJohnson in 2006? A no-brainer. Picking Larry Johnson in 2005? Not so much. Lastyear it took a wise owner to anticipate that the Chiefs' running back was asleeper, a player ready to have a breakout season. But those who had suchvision came away with a steal. As all owners know, identifying sleepers is--alltogether now--the key to winning your fantasy league. So which players areprimed for a breakout in '06?

1 - LaurenceMaroney
RB Patriots
In three seasons at Minnesota, Maroney rushed for 3,933 yards and 32touchdowns.

HOW MUCH does theNew England front office love Maroney? He was the No. 1 running back on theteam's draft board. That's right, ahead of even Heisman Trophy winner ReggieBush. Perhaps the Patriots were dazzled by Maroney's breakaway speed or hisastonishing balance. Regardless, by selecting the 5'11", 220-pound backfrom Minnesota with the 21st pick in April's draft, the team acknowledged thatit has concerns about incumbent starter Corey Dillon. The 10-year veteran has anumber of factors working against him: At 31 he is past the age when runningbacks tend to start breaking down, two of the last three seasons (2003 and '05)have been the worst of his career, and last year he ran slow and scared as hebattled ankle and calf injuries. Hmmm, let's look at this a little closer: Wehave a first-round running back from a Big Ten school who's backing up aninjury-prone veteran on the downside of his career and plays for a team thatmoves the ball and scores a lot of points? Sounds as if Maroney could be theLarry Johnson of '06.

2 - HeathMiller
TE Steelers
Miller's 39 catches in 2005 were the most by a Steelers tight end since1994.

A PLAYER whosenickname is Big Money and who has a candy bar called Heath's Big Money Barisn't exactly flying under the public's radar, but in fantasy terms Miller hasbeen undervalued. Pittsburgh enters the season without the King of the One-YardTouchdown, Jerome Bettis, who retired, and playmaking receiver Antwaan RandleEl, who bolted for the Redskins as a free agent. So someone has to make up forBettis's nine touchdowns and Randle El's 558 receiving yards. The likelycandidate is Miller, a 6'5", 256-pound blocking-and-receiving monster whoshould improve upon his rookie season, in which he ranked second on the team incatches (39) and touchdown receptions (six). Miller's scores all came in thefirst seven weeks of the season, at which point quarterback Ben Roethlisbergermissed three straight games with a right-knee injury and Miller didn't find theend zone again until the playoffs. The rapport between Miller andRoethlisberger, however, not only exists but should also strengthen withanother year of hooking up. Put Big Money on it.

3 - RoyWilliams
WR Lions
Williams's 16 touchdown catches are the most by any Lion in his first twoseasons.

WE KNOW whatyou're thinking: Roy Williams, a sleeper? Hear us out. Many fantasy draftboards don't include Williams among the top 15 receivers. That's way too lowfor this 6'2", 212-pound athletic freak. Williams had a good rookie year in2004 (817 yards, eight touchdowns) and then fell off slightly last season (687and eight) when he was hampered by a quad injury. He has yet to have abreakthrough year, but evidence suggests that it will come this season. Detroitoffensive coordinator Mike Martz has imported his aerial wizardry from St.Louis and has said he wants to make Williams the Lions' version of perennialAll-Pro Torry Holt. And new Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna, fresh fromCincinnati, has said that Williams compares favorably with the Bengals' ChadJohnson, considered by some to be the best wideout in the league. "Chadwould probably be ticked at me for saying this, but Roy Williams probably has agreater upside," Kitna told USA Today. "Chad is one of the top threereceivers in this league. And Roy can be there."

4 - DavidCarr
QB Texans
Carr is one of the NFL's top running quarterbacks, with 1,040 yards and six TDsin his career.

IT SEEMS as ifpeople have been repeating this mantra for a couple of years: David Carr isready to break out. Well, this really is the year that David Carr is ready tobreak out. The 6'3", 220-pound No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft hasalways had the arm and the ability. The difference this season is that he isgetting the coaching to fully tap that potential. New Texans coach Gary Kubiak,formerly with the 49ers and the Broncos, maximized the talents of Steve Youngand John Elway and even helped transform the maddeningly inconsistent JakePlummer into a Pro Bowl selection. Meanwhile, Houston's traditionally woefuloffensive line, which has allowed 229 sacks in Carr's four seasons, is muchimproved under new assistant head coach Mike Sherman, a former O-line coach,and new offensive line coach John Benton. With new acquisition Eric Mouldsjoining Andre Johnson, Carr has receiving threats that should enable him toroll up big fantasy numbers. Carr won't be Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer thisseason, but he won't be the same old David Carr either.

5 - FrankGore
RB 49ers
Last season Gore's 4.8-yard average led all rookie running backs with more than55 carries.

GORE WAS a muchbigger sleeper before San Francisco traded his main competition--last year'sstarter, Kevan Barlow--to the Jets on Aug. 20, but the move confirmed what manyhad noticed: Gore was having a terrific camp and is more than capable ofbecoming the 49ers' sole featured back. A 5'10" 208-pounder who combineshome-run-hitting ability with inside power, Gore rushed for a team-high 608yards as a rookie last year despite starting only one game and having 49 fewercarries than Barlow. In the off-season San Francisco brought in offensive guruNorv Turner to run the offense and 10-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen to addtoughness to the offensive line.

(During minicampcoach Mike Nolan had to tell Allen to stop throwing linebackers around becausehe was afraid somebody might get hurt.) Subtracting Barlow and adding Turnerand Allen? That equals a big season for Gore.

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